Welcome to Writing Tips Oasis’ newest guide, dedicated on how to write middle grade fiction. Writing for children, regardless of their age, can be more difficult than writing for adults – in any genre, mostly because it’s very easy for us to forget what it’s like to be children.
Hence, we end up with stories that no child would want to read. Moreover, children between the ages of 8 and 13 are very different. An 8-year-old is more viable to enjoy a novel targeted towards children, but a 13-year-old will be more interested in young adult fiction, for example. Trying to write a middle grade fiction novel means understanding the fact that if you become “too childish’’ in your novel, half of your intended audience will not enjoy it. However, go for a bit more mature and a bit more dramatic, and you get very close to young adult fiction.
However, that doesn’t mean that you cannot find a balance. For example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, falls into middle grade fiction. Even so, children and adults of all ages have come to enjoy it.
Knowing beforehand how middle grade fiction distinguishes itself in comparison to children’s fiction and young adult fiction will enable you to guide your novel in the right direction.
This guide is divided in three parts, all three of which is dedicated to understanding and deconstructing of all the elements that make middle grade fiction.
Part One: Defining the Middle Grade Genre
One of the best things about the middle age genre is this: it’s an age demographic. People only recently began to consider it a separate genre belonging to children’s fiction. However, that doesn’t mean that writing for the specific age demographic of 8 until 12 is somehow more difficult than writing for children or young adults. The elements of a good story remain the same in every genre. The difference here is in the themes you choose to tackle in your stories, and what your target audience will be. For that reason, it’s impossible to not further divide middle grade fiction into two age categories: early and late, early covering ages 8-10, and late covering ages 11-13.
However, another way of looking at middle grade fiction is through themes, writing style and tone. Younger children, belonging in the early group, will be interested in lighter topics, while older children might be more interested in crushing and very light romance. And while all children’s stories are essentially coming of age, middle grade is the time when we first discover the big bad world. Themes like being self-conscious, friendship, and even bullying in modern times, are interesting to the children who like to read about discovering oneself. On the other hand, humor, adventure, and fantasy will interest other children.
That’s what makes age so important in middle grade fiction.
1) Age in Middle Grade fiction
Your protagonist can be a little older or younger than your targeted audience, however, an 8-year-old might not pick up a book about a 7-year-old protagonist, but they will definitely pick it up even if the protagonist was aged 9 or 10. So, ideally, the age of the protagonist will be the same or older than your intended readers. For example, a late middle grade fiction protagonist can be aged 13 or even 14. 14 can be too young for young adult (depending on the story), but it can fit in late middle grade fiction. Children like to read about characters that are a little older than themselves – but not too much.
2) Middle Grade fiction: early ages 8-10
The second difference between early and late middle grade fiction stems from the themes, situations, and aims of your novel. If your novel is aimed at the younger crowd of eight to ten-year-olds, then your themes should revolve around friendship, family, humor. In other words, lighter themes that would engage the mind of the children. Many kids turn into lifelong readers at this age, which makes your novel really important. It’s one thing to write a great novel that all adults can enjoy, but writing the kind of novel that will make an 8-year-old say “I want to read more stories like this" is a completely different thing. The early middle grade novels focus more on lighthearted stories, like child superheroes and their friends. Some of them maybe even have juvenile humor (think fart jokes), because that’s what some middle graders want to read. You’re not writing a school textbook; you’re providing entertainment for children. And while it’s okay to dab into serious themes and topics, you have to do it while using the right perspective and voice. When you’re writing novels aimed for the early middle grade age, think more like a child and less like a young adult.
3) Middle Grade fiction: late ages 11-13
The latter ages, from 11 to 13 are a very special time in a child’s life. Children slowly leave more and more of their childhood behind, and they get closer and closer to being teenagers. An 11-year-old might be interested in reading about the adventures of an 8-year-old child, but chances are they would be more interested in a protagonist who is 12 or 13. The themes in this age range from friendship and family to first crush and romance. These are the times when the child begins to really see the world around them. The children that sit alone at lunch have different views of the world than those who walk around in a clique of friends. Belonging and fitting in become important themes that continue into the young adult (teenage) age, and while birthday parties and sleepovers are the highlight of a child’s social life, when they do not happen, there is a reason for it.
However, this doesn’t mean that just because you decided to make your protagonist 12 years old, that you need to shy away from lighter topics and adventure (and even fart jokes). Kids are different, and some kids want to read about self-discovery, but others just want the fun a story can bring.
4) Finding the kid voice
The voice of your protagonist is, obviously, the most important, regardless of whether you’re writing in first person point of view or third. First, you need to decide how eloquent the protagonist will be. A child up to 13 years old will not use words that are too long or too obscure. An even younger child might still have problems saying some words. For example, the word repercussions might become ripper cushions.
There are three ways for you to try to capture the voice of your protagonist (and other children in your novel). First, you can (and must!) read other books in your intended genre. Not to copy, but to see how it’s done, and to determine whether it’s good or not. The second way is by delving deep into your own childhood memories and remembering what it was like to be in that age. The third way to do this is by talking, conversing, and communicating with children of the same age.
Because here is the kicker: you might have loved Anne of Green Gables as a child, especially if you grew up before the digital age came with all its smartphones and tablets and even hoverboards (even though they don’t hover). An 8-year-old today is much more viable to have a hoverboard rather than a skateboard. Your memories serve to put you in the child’s state of mind, but unless you spend time with children who are middle grade in 2018, you will not know how a child views a smartphone, a tablet, or a computer.
5) Getting inside the protagonist’s head
Since we’re talking about children, getting inside their heads (or, your protagonist’s head), is both easy in one aspect and difficult in another.
The reason why it’s easy: your protagonist has only lived for less than a decade. You do not need to craft an extensive backstory that includes everything the protagonist has been through up until the moment your novel starts.
The difficulty stems from the fact that you’re still an adult, and middle grade was a long time ago for you. Add in the fact that the world changes drastically in the last 20 years, this makes your job even more difficult. In addition, think about the message you’re sending. If you show a 10-year-old girl whose goal in the day is to make a cute Facebook selfie, what kind of a message are you sending to other 10-year-old girls?
However, this is where backstory comes to help, in addition with the three ways of finding the voice of a child we mentioned in the previous section.
How did your protagonist grow up? Does he or she live with both her parents, or is he or she the child of a single parent? Where are the grandparents? Are they in the picture or not, and if not, what happened to them? Moreover, how does the child feel about the presence (or lack thereof) of parents or grandparents?
Then, we move on to school. Did the child go to pre-school or not? If he or she did not go to pre-school, did he or she have problems socializing in elementary school? Then, move on to middle grade before the novel starts. How many friends? How good of a friends? What is their daily routine? Do they care about school and learning, or do they prefer to go out and play? Add in the modern technology – is the child more comfortable sitting at home playing Nintendo Wii or PlayStation, or they prefer to go out and play football?
Create one normal day in the life of your protagonist, follow his or her thoughts and goals during that day, and figure out the right moment when his or her adventure begins.
6) Mixing in other genres
Adventure is prevalent in middle grade fiction, as well as children’s fiction, not because the characters go on a literal adventure (although, most often they do), but because the events of the novel are presented as such.
But, you can target any kind of genre towards children, within some limits, of course. Science fiction and fantasy, for example, but also mystery and slice-of-life become adventures when one constant in a child’s life is changed (visiting Grandma in the countryside, for example, can be a great slice-of-life adventure).
We already covered romance – it should be light, and you might add in a first kiss if the protagonist is of the older, late category. Mystery revolves around a missing item or a pet that has accidentally escaped.
You can cover tougher themes, because God knows that not every child has a happy childhood, but it goes without saying that if you choose to put a child in a thriller, then you’re not writing a book for children, regardless of their age. Unfortunately, children do not buy novels for themselves – their parents do, and if their parents decide that your novel has the potential to psychologically scar their children, your novel will remain on the shelf for years, waiting to be bought. This doesn’t mean that tougher themes cannot prevail in middle grade fiction – A Series of Unfortunate Events is prime example of how you can write books with difficult themes aimed at children. It’s all in the interpretation, perspective, and tone.
Part Two: Plotting, characterization, and narrative
For some writers, the most difficult thing is to know what to write. Other writers sit down and write a story in one sitting, no previous planning needed. Regardless of which group you belong to, knowing how to build a plot, how to show your characters within it, and to wrap it up in a narrative suitable and attractive to children, is imperative to telling a story. You might want to rely on instinct, and some writers are able to instinctively feel their way when telling a story, however, in most cases, something ends up missing.
For that reason, in this section, we’ll talk about plotting, characterization and narrative in middle grade fiction, and what makes middle grade fiction stand out.
1) Defining a protagonist
Defining the protagonist is a task that every writer takes on differently. Some writers prefer to discover more about their characters as they write the story, while others define their protagonists from the start.
Here, we will talk about defining the protagonist in the simplest sense. Besides age and appearance, you need to answer the following questions:
– What kind of traits does the protagonist possess?
– What kind of a lesson will the protagonist learn at the end?
– What changes in the protagonist from start to finish.
Your characters should not be perfect, even though they are children. Children can be just as ‘flawed’ as adults. By flawed, we do not mean ‘defect’ in any kind of way, we’re referring to traits that are and should be subjected to change. A child that doesn’t know how to share might be told that they are about receive a baby brother or a sister. The story revolves around the child learning how to share with friends, cousins and relatives. A spoiled child, for example, might learn that just because they want that new shiny expensive object, it doesn’t mean that they need it.
Sure, you might tell yourself, “I want to write a story about an orphaned child," but unless you define that orphan, his or her surroundings, the things that he or she will learn along the way, you will have a series of events that might be loosely connected via cause and effect, but at the end, the readers will ask themselves, “so, what was the point of this story?"
And, you don’t really want that, do you?
2) Creating the plot
In a good novel, there are always two things: a plot and a character’s arc for the protagonist. When you have a well-defined protagonist, when you know which traits the protagonist will change, you can create a plot that will help you bring these things to life. The plot is easy to define: in all novels, the protagonist is presented with a problem that they have to solve. The protagonist always goes for the easiest solution, which leads us to the first plot point. However, the easiest solution doesn’t work, and it is only when the protagonist learns his or her lesson, when they change for the better, that we get the second plot point – the correct solution to the problem, and from there, move on to the resolution of the overall conflict.
In middle grade fiction, these problems do not have to be worldly problems where the child has to save the world (although, there are great novels out there where children do save the world). Saving the world can mean anything for a child. Saving the world can mean defeating the neighborhood bully for good just so that the protagonist and his or her friends can play outside again in peace without the bully bothering them.
Once the protagonist has a single goal in mind, you can begin to build your novel in three acts.
Act 1: The first act in any novel is always the same: you introduce your characters, the protagonist, and the normal world where they live and interact. Even if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you need to define the “normal world" and present it to the readers. Act 1 also introduces the problem that the protagonist has to solve, and the inciting incident that causes the problem or makes the protagonist aware of it. When the protagonist makes the easiest (wrong) decision to solve the problem (or even deny it), you end the first act and begin with the second.
Act 2: At the beginning of act 2, it appears as if the protagonist has made the right decision. Things might even go really well for a while. However, since the problem hasn’t really been solved, this leads to small disasters, then bigger ones, until finally, the protagonist has to really face the problem and make the right decision. This moment is known as the second plot point, and this is when the second act ends.
In the third act, or, the resolution, the protagonist, now changed for the better, has made the right decision, and the time has come to either defeat the enemy, or fight a final battle, or do something that previously they did not want to even consider doing. This leads to the ending.
Now, the above is only a blueprint. You need to build up the plot as such following the line of cause and effect. You need to get from the inciting incident to the first plot point, and then to the second.
Another thing you must remember is that the first and second plot points are not connected by cause and effect directly. As such, with the help of your cast of characters and the protagonist’s traits, you can add subplots – small mini stories that include the other characters and that help you show your protagonist’s character better, or a bigger subplot that will take more page time and run almost parallel to the main one. Whichever way you decide to go, remember that every scene needs to be either plot related, subplot related via cause and effect, and serve to portray your characters better. If it’s just slice of life without any real plot-related substance, that scene will have to go.
3) Defining the cast of characters
There are two reasons why you need a cast of characters in your novel. The first is because your protagonist will never be all-knowing and able to do everything by themselves. Another reason is connected to the protagonist. The easiest way to show a character’s personality traits is in contrast with other characters. Adult characters help you show better the mind of a child – especially through the relationship between the child and the adult character.
Besides, the world of children can be full of people: friends, family members, extended family members, teachers, school mates, and more. Defining the cast of characters means choosing the role of each character. Once you’ve defined the role, you will have to create extensive backstories for the characters. The backstories will help you give each character a distinct voice, which is highly important, especially in scenes with dialogue.
What you need to remember, at all times, is who is telling the story. Writing in omnipresent point of view gives you the opportunity to get into many characters’ head and reveal things to the reader that the protagonist doesn’t know. On the other hand, writing in first or third person limited point of view means telling a story as the protagonist – no jumping around in other people’s heads. What the protagonist knows is the same thing that the readers know.
Remember that you’re writing a story about children meant to be read by children. Keep the narrative in the spirit of childhood, even if you’re showing themes that are difficult for a child to fully comprehend. Using words that children understand is imperative, keeping the violence to a minimum is preferable, and keeping the tone light and hopeful ideal for a middle grade story.
On the other hand, if your narrative is adult-like, how do you expect children to fully understand and enjoy your novel? Children can tell when the narrator is “adult" just by reading a couple of paragraphs. This makes them not want to finish reading and leave your novel aside in favor of novels with a lighter narrative that enables them to go on a ride, have an adventure, and still understand everything that’s happening.
5) Themes and ideas
Reading other middle grade books will give you a good idea on the themes and ideas that are prevalent in it. From love, friendship, family, to loyalty, courage, bravery, determination and perseverance. Including kindness, empathy, working in a team, and compassion. Conveying these ideas in writing is a different matter entirely. One of the best ways to show these themes is through the events of the plot.
Perseverance is shown through the protagonist taking on impossible odds and achieving his or her goal. The only difference between adult fiction and middle grade fiction, when it comes to themes, is the representation. For a child, perseverance can be shown by not giving up on even the simplest of goals. Kindness is shown through adversary, while true friendship, just like true love, can survive all sorts of trials.
What you should not do is try to cram too many themes into one novel. Choose one or two prevalent themes that the plot will revolve around, and let the other themes show themselves naturally in specific moments or events in the novel.
6) Impact of the modern age on Middle Grade fiction
As we previously said, a middle grader today will most probably ride a hoverboard rather than a skateboard. Kids from today barely even know what a landline telephone with a cord is, let alone a VHS. But, they do know how to use tablets, smartphones, and computers from a very young age.
Sure, you can omit technology in your novel, but that automatically transfers your novel back to the 90s when smartphones did not exist. But, today’s children might not find your novel believable. For example, a child running away from home and spending a day on their own in the city might have worked as a story in the 90s, but today? Today that kid will have their phone on them, so either have the kid discard the phone, or show the kid answering or ignoring its parents’ frantic phone calls. Point is, modern technology is a big part of children’s worlds today, and you should find a way to use it in your novel. Even social media is becoming more and more present in children’s world, as more and more kids have connections on Facebook and Instagram.
Adding modern technology in your novel does not encumber you in any way, especially since the use of technology by children opens up many opportunities for themes like childhood and what it means in the modern world, how fast do you grow up with technology at your fingertips, and what kind of dangers can come, not from the outside world, but from the world inside a child’s smartphone.
Part Three: Illustrations and other extras in Middle Grade fiction
It’s very uncommon for an adult novel to have illustrations and other extras, but even adults are happy when a book offers something more than just words and sentences. When it comes to children, these extras can make your novel even more attractive. If you’re writing a middle grade fiction novel, you need to consider which one of these extras you can and should include.
By default, this will depend on the story you’re telling, and on the impact you’re trying to achieve. In the last part of this guide, we’ll be focusing on illustrations, writing style – especially, writing style meant for children, and other extras that can help you boost your novel to great levels.
1) Illustrations: yes or no?
If you’re writing for the early middle graders, ages 8 to 10, you might want to consider adding illustrations to your novel. Now, there are a few things you need to know. Unless you’re a gifted illustrator, you will need to hire one to create these for you. That means commissioning art, which might be expensive, especially if you’re self-publishing. If a big publishing house stands behind you, on the other hand, illustrations might be included in your novel regardless of whether or not you want them in your novel or nor.
If you decide to go for it, know that early middle grade fiction allows for full page illustrations of places, characters, and events. But, this might make your book longer and more expensive to print. On the other hand, if you’re writing for ages 10 and up, you should remember that one illustration of an object or a character at the beginning of each chapter is enough.
2) Mixing other genres
Middle grade fiction, as we previously said, turns any kind of story into an adventure, due to the ages of the characters and the protagonist. However, here are a few things to keep in mind if you wish to mix in other genres.
Science fiction and fantasy: do not think that it’s easy to add science fiction and fantasy in a novel for middle graders, thinking that since these kids barely know the laws of science, no one can dispute your worldbuilding. But that’s not exactly true. Children know and understand rules, and if you deem to break your own worldbuilding rules in science fiction and fantasy, they will know what you’ve done. Many of them will scoff and say, “that’s not possible," and they’ll be taken out of the story just like any adult would.
If you wish to mix in a mystery, treat your protagonist like a mini-detective with a keen mind, and do not offer the solution out of the blue. Have the protagonist solve the mystery by following clues and making the right deductions (and wrong ones from which he will learn). Do not believe that you get a shortcut just because you’re writing for children, working under the false belief that children will believe anything.
Of course, children have great imagination, and yes, if you present a planet that has no gravity in your story and everybody is flying around on the surface, then they will accept the possibility of such a planet existing. But, this doesn’t mean that you can also have that planet rain candy out of rainbow-colored clouds, wrappers and everything. Keep it real and imaginative, rather than throwing everything on the wall and see what sticks, even if it doesn’t make sense.
3) Writing style
One of the biggest mistakes you can make in writing for middle graders (and children in general) is to write down at them. They are children, but they are neither slow nor stupid. There is no need for you to repeat the same things over and over again, and there is no need for you to dumb down the language and writing style.
Remember, middle grade is the age when children begin to discover the world. They are curious and can be very sharp at times, and they will know when a writer is dumbing it down. There is no need for that.
However, a middle grade novel is also not the place for philosophical statements, recollections, and long paragraphs of inner reflection and thoughts. This has the opposite effect: the children read but do not understand much, which means, they are not enjoying reading your novel. And while some adults might overcome this problem and finish your novel, children will stop reading and never go back to it.
Your best bet is to have a child read your middle grade story (or a part of it). Gauge their reaction and then make changes accordingly.
4) On preaching vs. teaching
When it comes to talking down to children, another problem that arises is the difference between preaching and teaching. Teaching is guiding the child to understanding something about life. You do not tell them, you show them and you help them come to the right conclusion and learning the lesson.
Preaching, on the other hand, is telling the child over and over again that the sky is blue and can only be blue (even though it can be grey when it rains, white when it snows, black at night). Everyone has their own beliefs, but writers always face the problem of preaching – even when writing for adults. Do not preach your principles and opinions in your novel, especially not when it’s intended for children. With the theme of your novel in mind, find a way to include important life lessons in it – but through the eyes and perspective of your protagonist.
Guide your protagonist, let your protagonist learn on his own, and you will not have the problem of preaching in your novel. Yes, stealing is bad, for example, but instead of having five different characters say that in five different scenes, have the protagonist steal something, face the consequences, and then learn and understand why stealing is wrong.
5) Creating impact and grabbing attention
Here is the moment where your creativity shows itself to its full light. Alas, maybe you wanted to wind surf when you were a kid, and maybe you think that this will be so fun to depict in a novel, but unless that activity makes sense in the story, it might not really belong in there.
Your middle grade novel is not the place where you can live out your childhood wishes and things you never got to do.
On the other hand, having a middle grader attend school and only school in your novel is also not a good idea, even though school takes up most of a child’s day. Focus on action, and on change. Open your novel with the child going to school, then immediately have the action happen that jumpstarts the plot. Middle grade fiction novels are shorter, in general, than adult contemporary novels. This means that you need to exclude everything that’s not necessary to the story. Keep school only if the story happens at the school. And even then, in the name of entertainment, make the events that happen both fun and realistic.
6) Importance of word count
When it comes to word count, middle grade fiction ranges anywhere from 20K to 50-60K. This is because children have shorter attention spans than adults, and if they see that a book is ‘very big’ they might not even want to read it. And while that epic fantasy revolving around children will be awesome for you to write, the children meant to read it might not be interested in reading such a long novel, no matter how amazing it might actually be.
On the other hand, a shorter novel means a quicker plot (because you still need to get from plot point one to plot point two). You have less page time to show and develop and flesh out your characters, so make sure that every scene in your novel has an impact on the plot and it serves to show character. Otherwise, you will have to cut it out in the editing process.
All readers want to read a story that they enjoy. Some readers prefer to read a story that will take them on an adventure and make them think. Other readers prefer only the adventure. They read to escape, not to reflect on the real world or their own lives.
Children are the same. Your story might be an adventure that also teaches kids about love, friendship, loyalty, and more, or your story might be intended to make children laugh. Whichever way you go, if your characters are vivid enough, if your story is interesting, and if you do not write down to children and preach in your story, then children will love it. Writing a great novel for adults is easier because we are also adults, and we understand adults a lot more. Writing a great novel for children might be more difficult, but it can be done, and who knows when the next JK Rowling will come along?
Keep writing and practicing your craft, and you will write a novel that all kids would enjoy. Good luck!
Georgina Roy wants to live in a world filled with magic. As a screenwriting student, she is content to fill notebooks and sketchbooks with magical creatures and amazing new worlds. When she is not at school, watching a film or scribbling away in a notebook, you can usually find her curled up, reading a good urban fantasy novel, or writing on her own.